Summary: Funeral sermon for John Sheppard, retired Army sergeant, who had taken on a life of service and who had suffered with illness for several years.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then today the photographs you have selected will suffice for the message.
In one of them there is a young man, wearing the uniform of the United States Army. This young man’s face displays dignity; his bearing is proud, his eyes are steady, his stance is sure. He has enlisted in the army of his nation, and he is ready to do his duty. It is a proud picture.
In the other there is an older man. He wears not the uniform of the United States, but the casual dress of a man who has earned the right to relax. This old man’s face is different in some ways from the face of the young man: this old man’s eyes are weary, and he can no longer stand at attention. Though the dignity is still there, it is marked by something else. Something else shows on that face that was not there on the younger face. There is the mark of suffering. The lines etched by pain and sickness. No less dignity, but now a new dimension of suffering.
The young soldier, the older sufferer. Both of them are John Sheppard. Both of them are your husband, brother, father, and grandfather. But in between these two pictures there are many years. And in between are many experiences.
Now I have never served in the military. And so my information and my impressions may not be accurate. But they tell me that in the army, it is the sergeants who have the real knowledge. It is the sergeants who have the street smarts. The commissioned officers may have the college degrees and the theory, but I’m told it is the noncommissioned officers who have the real stuff! Is that right? Sorry about that, Colonel Deloatch; Major Reed, forgive me!
The officers may wear the fancy uniforms, with all the scrambled eggs; but it is the sergeants who carry the day, when the battle is to be fought. If you want to learn how to survive the battle, ask the sergeant. If you want to discover how to make things happen, learn from the sergeant.
And so that is what we are going to do today. We are going to learn from the sergeant. Just as Paul counsels the young Timothy, "What you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well." God entrusted to John Sheppard certain key lessons, and his life will teach them to us. Just as I used to go to your home and find Herman and John Ryan clustered around their grandfather’s bed, learning from him, so we will all learn from him today.
The first of these lessons is the lesson of grace. The lesson of grace. Paul says, "you then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus."
The grace that is in Christ Jesus is the willingness to reach out and to extend hope to those who are lost. You and I would be in a hopeless condition if it were not for the grace of Christ. John Sheppard had felt that grace, and extended it to others. Just look at the service theme in his life. Through this, his church, he chose to serve others, and to demonstrate the forgiving, healing grace of Christ. Read the record: Meals-On-Wheels. the Diaconate, the Sunday School. The Wednesday Club, which serves those whom almost nobody else loves … I added that one. You forgot it, there are so many! And forgot to add the choir, the ushers. Wherever there was a need to serve in God’s house and to extend grace to God’s people, John Sheppard was there. He could be counted on.
The thing about being strong in grace is that it never earns you the plaudits of the world. You don’t get many battlefield decorations out there in the corporate world for being gracious. But, since, as Paul says here, "the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer", John knew well what he must do. He was strong in grace, the forgiving, giving grace that is like Christ and that builds up others.
The second lesson from the sergeant, from John Sheppard, is the lesson of endurance. Quiet, brave endurance. Paul’s counsel is, "Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus."
I don’t know that many of us could have survived all that John survived. It’s been a long, hard business. All the time I’ve known John, it seems, he’s been struggling with his health. I consulted my pastoral records this week, and found these notes: Wednesday, Nov. 16, 1994 (more than a year ago): dialysis not working, not quite coherent, cannot speak clearly, condition apparently serious. Sunday, Nov. 20, 1994; appears to be improved, but he disagrees. I remember the vigorous headshake when I offered the idea that he seemed to be getting better!